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Hopeful Writing and the Future Library

A few weeks ago I had the great fortune to encounter this little gem on Twitter: Future Library. It's a fascinating artwork-in-progress by Katie Paterson which involves a forest in Norway, books and 100 years. Oh, and Margaret Atwood. Ah, yes, now we see why Sinéad is so excited.

I presume that she calls this an 'artwork' rather than 'work of art' or 'installation' because the Future Library is an ongoing, developing happening that seems to me to really touch the beauty of literature and our relationship with it and our world. A forest has been planted in Norway and every year a writer will be selected to write a piece to go into this future library. No one except the writer will know what this piece of writing is until the 100 years are up. At that point, the forest will be cut down and used to make the books on which all the writing will be printed.

The hippy in me is, of course, upset that they're going to cut down a forest, but that's a fact of book making and, I suppose, a tradeoff that I'm willing to make. The reader in me is gutted because it seems unlikely that I will ever get to read whatever Margaret Atwood will submit this year. And, at the same time, the reader in me is incredibly excited by this project.

Margaret Atwood and Katie Paterson say in Atwood's video that it's exciting that we have the hope that people will still be reading 100 years into the future. Is it though? Perhaps I'm naive to think that there will always be readers, but I still believe this. The children who will almost certainly be alive in 100 years are not so far away. Is there a chance that the love of reading will be lost in the next 10, 20, 30 years? If so, I think it bodes very poorly for humanity.

Paterson explains that this project is about the printed book and so they have 'buried' a printing press in the library so that future generations can be taught how to produce printed books. This, I think, is a less dire question about the reading future. Although I love printed books and I think that they have inherent worth as objects in and of themselves, and although I do not share the belief that the printed book is dying, I do think the printed word is undergoing a transformation and probably will not be the same in 100 years. It has changed over the past 100 years, so why not in the next 100? I love this idea that the art of bookmaking, as it is today, will be preserved.

I also love Paterson's idea of 'growing a book.' As the trees grow, they are affected by our world and by us and then they will be transformed into the books which will be speaking from the past, from the birth and growth of these trees to a future. As Atwood says, writing is a kind of time capsule, a way of speaking from one time to another, this is just a longer time. In a way, these trees are also a time capsule. Paterson's choice of tree rings as the project's representative image is, no doubt, quite deliberate, wanting to call to mind how tree rings not only show the tree's growth but also what happens in the outside world: when droughts came; when pestilence struck; what trees around it did; if a forest fire ever struck and more. Trees, like books, both react to and represent our world.

So, even though I'm sad not to be able to read Atwood's newest book, I'm excited by this artwork. I am not hopeful that there will be readers queuing up to get their hands on these books in 100 years. I am certain they will be there and that they will count themselves lucky to have been born at the right time to be able to read these time capsules, printed on time capsules that have been growing for 100 years.

And now for the wonderful Margaret Atwood...